Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History | Analysis

How our appetite for cheap food drove rural America to Trump

Consumer demand and government policy decimated rural America.

By Benjamin Davison

June 30, 2017 at 9:11 AM

Decades of failed farm policies made President Trump attractive to rural Americans. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

When searching for the roots of Trumpism, analysts inevitably turn to rural America, the geographic center of President Trump’s support. Yet seldom do they consider the heart of rural America: the family farm. It’s there that Americans’ appetite for cheap food helped propel Trump to victory.

Since the 1940s, Washington has employed various policy mechanisms to control crop prices, which helped make American food the cheapest in the world. But these same policies also enabled agricultural corporations to absorb tens of thousands of family farms that could not make a profit. Tossed off their land, rural Americans were ready for a populist who could tap into the anger they felt toward the government and elites, hazily defined as “arugula Americans,” the well-heeled urbanites and suburbanites who lived well thanks to food policies that depressed the standard of living for folks who worked the land.

Government planners launched the countryside on its path toward Trumpism after World War II. Washington worried that farmers could not produce enough food to satisfy international aid commitments, or ensure that the military could stockpile food in the event of a war with the Soviet Union. Military decision-makers’ sense of what sacrifices the public would and would not tolerate during a Cold War dictated maintaining high levels of military-focused crop production without a drop-off in the goods flowing to supermarkets.

The resulting policies set rural America on a wholly different course than what Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dealers imagined during the 1930s: rather than restraining production to boost prices and relieve entrenched poverty, the government urged farmers to coax as much food from the ground as possible. Direct payments to farmers and market controls allowed those producers who followed the government’s rules to stay afloat, even if it resulted in the same overproduction that provoked the prewar agricultural depression.

As the Cold War intensified, so, too, did the relationship between rural prosperity and public policy. But larger companies benefited at the expense of small farmers. For instance, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sponsored the 1948 “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest, which aimed to breed the ideal chicken for mass-marketing. The USDA planners funding the competition believed that the research would help small farmers build their own businesses. Instead, companies like Tyson built massive hatcheries that sold birds to small farms that would ultimately raise them for the poultry giant on a contract basis.

Tyson was not the only company that used government support to get big. Cargill, Con-Agra, and Iowa Beef Processors continued to expand and consolidate the smaller farms and ranches that these government subsidies were ironically designed to help.

Consumer activism also pushed for cheaper food. Protesters besieged Washington during the Nixon years demanding cheaper food, no matter the cost. Housewives deluged the White House mailroom with cash register tape demonstrating their belief that food was too expensive, and expressing their power as consumers to shape the economy.

Expanding staple crop production — items, such as corn or wheat — was Washington’s preferred strategy for keeping prices down and consumers happy. The big corporations, in turn, were best poised to profit from such an expansion since they could withstand diminishing profits. Small family farms could never hope to keep up.

As large agricultural corporations grew in influence, satisfying suburbanites, they also reshaped rural labor. By the mid-1970s, federal planners determined that farmers working less than 200 acres — a majority of the country’s agrarians — could no longer rely solely on farm income to survive. Many found jobs with rural processing companies, such as Tyson, which needed low-cost labor to staff factories packing cheap chicken for companies like KFC or Kroger.

This meant that struggling farm families across the country had to rely on minimum wage jobs preparing cheap food for sale at suburban supermarkets. Small farms were already languishing when the Reagan administration altered the allotment system, which sent them careening into a debt crisis that shuttered tens of thousands of independent farms. Large corporations eventually gobbled up those farms because they could afford to take out high interest loans to buy up devalued farmland.

Immigration, particularly from Latin America, also greatly affected rural labor markets. Although many Americans imagine immigrants working in the countryside as stereotypical migrant laborers, many actually tackle the grueling hours and the brutal pace required to butcher chickens for fast food joints or to load cereal onto trucks — the front line of the food economy.

Since 1980, the Latino population doubled in 22 states, with Southern and Midwestern farm states experiencing the fastest rates of growth. Immigrants flocked to previously all-white communities and company towns, leading longtime residents to feel dislocated and threatened. For example, Garden City, Kan., the site of a massive beef processing plant, went from 1 percent to 51 percent Latino in only 20 years.

As rural and urban Americans drifted further apart, with the former getting poorer and unlikely to benefit from an emerging service and tech-based economy, rural resentments simmered.

The 1990s militia movements engendered skepticism thanks to its white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Yet its ideas gained significant traction in rural America by charging that the “tyrannical” federal government crushed individual opportunity and freedom to benefit distant cities and economic elites.

Very few rural Americans embraced militant racism, but the nihilistic, anti-urbanist, anti-government language resonated widely, particularly among whites who had lost farms because of failed policy and found themselves working in chicken processing plants for minimum wage, personally embodying a system that had failed America’s farmers.

Policies that helped provide cheap bread, beef and poultry to help middle-class families afford new cars and college tuitions had a high cost for rural Americans. It convinced them that they and their children had no future in modern America.

By the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2008 with a proudly urbanist outlook, the economic fault lines had long since been joined by cultural and political divides. Urban politicians — increasingly Democrats — were avatars for the well-heeled suburbanites and city-bound hipsters who ate well and cheaply off the hard work of floundering farmers and an older, white workforce struggling to fend off immigrant labor (for brutal and low-paying jobs, no less).

Michelle Obama famously started a vegetable garden in the White House and rightfully questioned the healthfulness of the industrial diet. However, those unhealthy foods kept struggling farmers on their land, figuratively and literally feeding their families.

Enter Trump, who voiced the frustrations of multiple generations of rural Americans by promising to kick out job-stealing immigrants, revive coal mines that had once provided good jobs to the farmers’ children, and remind urban elites that rural folks not only had a voice, but deserved a chance to succeed in America.


Benjamin Davison is a PhD candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. He is currently writing a history of the supermarket industry.

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